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The unseasonable warm-up last weekend and early this week greatly diminished snow levels across the state and brought winter recreational activities to a halt in all except far northern Wisconsin, and even there conditions were poor to marginal.
Snow depths now range from just a trace in Marathon County to up to a foot at most in areas of Vilas County. The warm weather and rain also greatly reduced ice depths and even reopened some lakes, including Lake Monona in Madison. Ice depths in the north now range from 6 to 8 inches. Colder temperatures that arrived midweek should begin to improve conditions again, and snow is in the forecast for next week.
Only a few snowmobile trails are open and they are in poor condition, according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism's Snow Conditions Report (exit DNR). Just the Brule River State Forest and Copper Falls State Park were reporting fair to good cross-country ski conditions, with the Northern Highland-American Legion forest suspending trail grooming until more snow arrives. The warm weekend and rain opened the Black River at Pattison State Park and the Amnicon River at Amnicon Falls State Park from their ice covering, which were providing spectacular winter scenes.
The last firearm deer season of the year will be a Holiday Hunt in that will open in the southern farmland zone [PDF]. The hunt runs from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1 and is only for antlerless deer. This is a change from previous years when bucks could be harvested with bonus buck opportunities.
The mild weather did bring out quite a few anglers on Northwoods lakes and success for walleye, northern pike and panfish was generally good. There was some ice fishing activity occurring on Little Lake Butte des Morts with anglers catching both northern pike and crappie. But the ice thickness varies there was a report of an ice angler going through the ice who was able to get back out.
On the bay of Green Bay and parts of Lake Michigan the little ice there was is almost gone. Along Lake Michigan anglers fishing the harbors have been catching a few browns and rainbows at Port Washington, Milwaukee and Racine. Slow moving stretches of the Root River are iced over; but there is open water below the Horlick dam.
The low snow has pheasant and grouse hunters out and they've reported good success lately. The warm weather gave weasels and rabbits new vigor, and they were out and about. There have been reports of bears denned in standing corn fields while farmers have been getting their last corn off the field. So farmers are urged to drive harvest equipment slow around these areas to let bears vacate the area and relocate to avoid a collision.
Snowy owls and rough-legged hawks have made an early appearance on the Horicon Marsh. Many rough-legged hawks have also been observed in the Coulee Region. These large hawks breed in the Arctic tundra and migrate to and winter primarily in the lower 48 states.
This weekend there are a number of Winter Solstice events being held at state park and forest properties, and on Jan. 1 there will be First Day Hikes at 11 different properties. To get details on these and other evens, search the DNR website , dnr.wi.gov, for keywords "Get Outdoors."
Superior DNR Service Center area
Brule River State Forest - The After Hours Ski Trail conditions are fair to good, with some icy spots. Trail was combed Wednesday and track was set on the entry system. Some portions of the track did not set well due to a thin layer of snow over ice and slush. - Dan Kephart, ranger
Ashland DNR Service Center area
Copper Falls State Park - Snow levels have dropped due to the recent warm weather. Skiing and snowshoeing opportunities are still available. Takesson Trail is open and tracked for classic skiing. It is in fair condition. Vahtera Trail is open and tracked for classic skiing. It is in fair condition. The Pipeline and Meadow trails for skate skiing and are in fair condition. Trails were last groomed on Dec. 2 and 3. Loon Lake has ice. Conditions vary and ice can be thin in areas due to the recent warmer temperatures. Ice fishermen have been walking out and catching panfish.
Pattison and Amnicon state parks - After an abnormally warm weekend with rain, both the Black River at Pattison State Park, and the Amnicon River at Amnicon Falls State Park, opened from their ice covering and are providing spectacular scenes. - Kevin Feind, supervisor
Hayward DNR Service Center area
Tuscobia State Trail - There will be a special event on the Tuscobia Trail on Jan. 1-4, 2015. This event will bring approximately 150 bicycles and hikers at all times of the day, including overnight, to the Tuscobia Trail. Visitors using snowmobiles on the trail should be aware of this event. Please slow down accordingly and watch for other users on the trail. For information see http://tuscobia.wordpress.com (exit DNR). - Ben Bergey, northwest parks supervisor
Park Falls DNR Service Center area
Upper Chippewa Basin fisheries report (Price, Rusk, Sawyer Taylor and inland Ashland and Iron counties) - With the rain and mild temperatures in the last week, ice conditions on Northwoods lakes did show a bit of deterioration. The warm temps melted nearly all of the snow off the surface, and ice thickness now ranges from 6 to 8 inches on most lakes in the area. However, inlet and outlet areas, and drain holes in the ice have created some treacherous spots, and a new 2-3 inch covering of snow has hidden many of these hazardous areas. As such, ice anglers should exercise caution if venturing out on any Northwoods waters in the next few weeks and be especially wary of old ice holes that may be hidden under the snow. With that said, the mild weather did bring out quite a few anglers and success for walleye, northern pike and panfish was generally good. Walleye have continued to be the main species of interest and the best success has come in the late afternoon just before dark. The most productive method has been with tip-ups fished at the 4 to 8 foot depth, and baited with an XL fathead or medium sucker. No specific areas have been better than others - as fish are being found on the shallow mud flats, some near green-weed edges and some on the edges of gravel/rock bars. Most of the walleye have been in the 10 to 16 inch size, but a few in the low 20-inch size have also been reported. A few tip-up fishermen have also been targeting northern pike and have had pretty good success. The best action has come during the mid-day hours, with a large golden shiner fished near the edges of any green weed beds. Most of the pike have been in the 18 to 22 inch size, but a few in the 30-inch range have also being caught. A fair number of panfish anglers have also been venturing out and most have reported pretty good success on bluegill, crappie and perch. In general, the panfish have been found suspended a foot or so off the bottom in the deeper parts of the lake. Small teardrop jigs tipped with waxworms have provided the best action. - Skip Sommerfeldt, senior fisheries biologist, Park Falls
Flambeau River State Forest - The ski trail condition is poor: the base is gone in many areas with water/ice in low sections of trail. There are very wet conditions with about 3 inches of snow on the ground. We will need several more inches of snow before resuming grooming operations. There is still open water on both the north and south forks of the Flambeau River. Anglers are hitting local lakes but use caution as ice conditions may be unstable with the recent warm temperatures. We are seeing a few rabbits, both snowshoe and cottontails. Weasels are busy and are sporting their winter white coats. - Judy Freeman, visitor services associate
Woodruff DNR Service Center area
Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest - The warmer weather experienced last week has greatly impacted the snow base on the trails. To prevent damage to our equipment we will be suspending grooming until conditions improve.- Tony Martinez, forestry facilities worker
Antigo DNR Service Center area
Langlade County - With the recent warm up and steady rains most of the snow has disappeared in open areas. Fresh snow had fallen in the evening of Dec. 16, but had averaged less than a half an inch of accumulation. Most lakes have had standing water on the ice as of Dec. 15. Use extreme caution if you venture onto the lakes. Fishing has been moderate to slow with some the panfish bite being spotty. Deer hunting pressure is low on most of the public lands. A few grouse hunters are taking advantage of the moderate weather. - Andrew Dryja, conservation warden, White Lake
Council Grounds State Park - Due to recent warm weather there is no snow on the ski trails. - Sara J. Gossfeld-Benzing, ranger-assistant property manager, Council Grounds State Park
Green Bay DNR Service Center area
Brown County - The snow is mostly gone in Brown County, with the exception of the dusting received earlier in the week. With the warm up, all ice is going to be questionable. People are not encouraged to go on the ice, especially the rivers and wetlands. A reminder, that in the Brown County Metro unit, archery hunting goes until the end of January so people still have time to fill those archery tags. - Cara Kamke, conservation warden, Green Bay
Sturgeon Bay DNR Service Center area
Door County - On the bay of Green Bay and parts of Lake Michigan the little ice there was is almost gone. Inland lakes have also lost some ice and I would say that the ice is not safe for recreation until we get some more cold weather. Sturgeon Bay did get about an inch of snow last night but that is really the only snow left on the ground. Individuals are seeing some turkeys and pheasants (where they were planted). Hunting activity in the area continues for just about everything and Door County did have about an average deer harvest over the gun season. - Brandon Bastar, fisheries research vessel captain, Sturgeon Bay
Peninsula State Park - The park received approximately half an inch of snow this week. Icy, slippery conditions exist all over the park. Cross-country ski trails are not groomed. Showshoe/hiking trails may be icy or wet in areas. Sledding hill closed due to lack of snow. Snowmobile trails closed. - Jane Barnowsky, visitor services associate
Rock Island State Park - Washington Island is quiet. Ice is too thick for boating and too thin to walk on to fish. Weather man forecast 1 inch of snow-just finishing plowing -3-4 inches and still snowing. Coyote hunters are enjoying the new tracking snow. Christmas bird count has been difficult with all the fog. I'm heading to the desert SW for a few weeks. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours! - Randy Holm, ranger and assistant property manager
Wautoma DNR Service Center area
Waupaca County - All the early snow is history. There's still some deer hunting pressure out there, with deer starting to move during daylight hours again. After a brief absence, geese have returned north. - Karl Kramer, wildlife technician, Wautoma
Oshkosh DNR Service Center area
Winnebago County - There is some ice fishing activity occurring on Little Lake Butte des Morts. Anglers are catching both northern pike and crappie. The ice thickness varies and ice fishermen should use caution when venturing out on the lake. Wardens spoke with one ice fisherman, who was fishing with several other fishermen, that went through the ice; he was able to get out without the assistance of others. - Tom Sturdivant, conservation warden, Neenah
Milwaukee DNR Service Center area
Kettle Moraine State Forest, Lapham Peak Unit - The 1.5 K loop of ski trail covered with manmade snow survived the harsh warm weather and rain. The entire loop is covered and was groomed Wednesday night for skate skiing and a classic track was set also. Conditions are good or better for skating. Classical skiers will find a well formed track, but the snow is a chewed up corn/icy snow which is difficult to wax for and get good kick. The warm weather did create a number of bare spots which the groomers were able to cover with snow pushed from elsewhere on the trail; however, there are some scattered dirty snow sections. A small amount of snow was made last night. Based on current weather predictions the next snowmaking opportunity will be after Christmas. As soon as conditions allow snowmaking will be done which may result in small sections of trail being closed for short periods of a day or two. - Paul Sandgren, property supervisor
Kettle Moraine State Forest, Pike Lake Unit - The trail conditions at Pike Lake are in moderate winter hiking condition with stretches that are wet and muddy along with icy patches and stretches. December 21 there will be a Winter Solstice wildlife tracking hike. Meet at the Nature Trail parking lot. Hike begins at 2 p.m. On January 1 there will be a First Day Hike. Meet at the Beach Parking Lot at noon. Afterwards hot chocolate will be served at the main office.
Southern Lake Michigan fisheries team report - Compiled from creel clerks by Cheryl Masterson and Jeffrey Zinuticz, fisheries technicians, Milwaukee
Ozaukee County - Port Washington anglers fishing the harbor have been catching a few browns and rainbows near the power plant. Spawn sacs have been the most effective bait.
Milwaukee County - In Milwaukee shoreline anglers near the Summerfest grounds have been catching decent numbers of browns. The river mouth and harbor have no ice cover yet. The fishing pier at the Oak Creek Power Plant is closed for the winter months, and it is scheduled to reopen on March 15.
Racine County - In Racine the harbor in Reefpoint Marina is starting to freeze over, but there are aerators running near the docks, which are keeping some water open. Anglers fishing in Reefpoint have been catching a few brown trout on spawn sacs and white tube jigs tipped with wax worms. Slow moving stretches of the Root River are iced over; but there is open water below the Horlick dam as well as below the Main Street bridge.
Waukesha DNR Service Center area
Waukesha County - Short-eared and a snowy owl have been spotted at Paradise Valley Wildlife Area. Deer hunting opportunities are still available with the holiday antlerless hunt, late archery season, and the extended season in the metro unit. Deer activity is returning to normal dusk feeding patterns with lower hunting pressure. Turkey season is also open until Dec. 31 in Zone 2. - Kelly VanBeek, wildlife biologist, Waukesha
South Central Region
Dodgeville DNR Service Center area
Richland County - The Lower Wisconsin Riverway is full of shelf ice and ice conditions remain unsafe. Pheasant hunters are still able to pursue a late season pheasant hunt on state properties where earlier releases occurred until Dec. 31. - Michael Nice, conservation warden, Richland Center
Horicon DNR Service Center area
Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area - Snowy owls and rough-legged hawks have made an early appearance on the Horicon Marsh. Frequent sightings of both species have been noted off of Hwy 49. The entire marsh is now open for hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Ice conditions remain very unstable due to warming temperatures and recent rains. All anglers are reminded to use extreme caution before venturing onto the ice. The second period of the Horicon Zone goose season ended Tuesday Dec.16. Pheasant hunting remains open until the end of December. With no snow cover and the continued sporadic release of birds, hunters continue to have successful pheasant hunts in the area. - Jennifer Wirth, visitor services specialist
Fitchburg DNR Service Center area
Devil's Lake State Park - After an early and cold start to winter, there have been many mild, gray, and damp days. The lake froze over, and then has waxed and waned since, with open water patches at times. As of Dec. 16, parts of the lake were open water and parts are frozen. The park does not monitor ice conditions but recent warm weather and rain has likely made the remaining ice unsafe. The snow is almost entirely gone, present now in only the shadiest of previously drifted spots.- Richard Hesed, visitor services associate
West Central Region
La Crosse DNR Service Center area
Vernon County - Many rough-legged hawks have been observed in the Coulee Region. These large buteos breed in the Arctic tundra and migrate to and winter primarily in the lower 48 states. They feed mainly on small rodents and often hunt for them by hovering above a grassy field before diving down on the unsuspecting prey. Deep snow cover tends to push the birds farther south. Rough-legged hawks get their name from their furry-looking legs, which are feathered to the toes with soft feathers. Identification characteristics include a small bill and feet, long, rounded wings, much white on the underwing flight feathers, and a white tail with a wide dark band or bands near the tip. Most rough-legged hawks have a dark belly and dark patch at the underwing "wrist." There are two color phases, light and dark, with light phases outnumbering dark phases. - Dave Matheys, wildlife biologist, Viroqua
Black River Falls DNR Service Center area
Black River State Forest - Warmer weather over the last few days has melted most of the snow in the area. Winter ATV trails remain closed due to warmer temperatures and poor trail conditions. Highs this week are expected to be in the 20s to low 30s. - Emily Alf, Visitor Services Associate, Black River State Forest
Juneau County - The snow in Juneau County is pretty well gone with the recent warm up. Ice anglers had some good success on pan fish early ice in most locations, but that action has slowed. A few walleyes are being caught but most are short or in the slot. The ice deteriorated substantially with the warm weather, mainly on the river channels and around the edges. As of Dec. 17, both Petenwell and Castle Rock Dams were pushing a lot of water through, making the ice on Castle Rock very unpredictable and dangerous, with channels and cracks opening up. Use extreme caution on Castle Rock, as it will take some time for the dams to shut back down and the ice to firm back up. The lack of snow has made it easier for pheasant hunters to get out and do some late season hunting, and some are having good success at it. - Kyle Lynch, conservation warden, Mauston
Trempealeau County - The recent warm weather has deteriorated the ice on local lakes and ponds. Use extreme caution on any frozen water body as ice conditions are generally poor. Area hunters are reporting they are seeing more grouse than usual in the woods. With the snow cover gone, pheasants are also being seen in the grassy areas on DNR Wildlife Areas. The warm weather has also stalled the re-opening of the ATV trails in Jackson County. All ATV trails, with the exception of the Buffalo River State Trail in northwestern Jackson County, are currently closed. - Robin Barnhardt, conservation warden, Osseo
Eau Claire DNR Service Center area
Chippewa County - Lots of hunters hit the fields for the antlerless hunt and hunters were having good success near standing corn fields. Moderate winter temperatures has been keeping the deer moving and bow hunters out in the tree stand getting every inch out of their season. With deer season coming to an end, it has brought out the beginning stages of our winter sports. The trails in the county have been marked and wait the arrival of a good snow base before snowmobile season opens up. A few warm days and rain deteriorated ice on lakes and rivers, but a few more days of cold weather has re-firmed the ice enough for fisherman to get out. Use caution on the ice, as no ice is good ice, ice cleats and picks are recommended and be very cautious if driving a motor vehicle or ATV on the ice. Fisherman have reported catching bluegills and crappies in good numbers on flasher jigs and wax worms and walleyes have been caught jigging with small spoons and minnows. Hunters have reported seeing great wildlife this past deer season including: coyotes, pileated wood peckers, bobcats, fisher, otters, white-deer and bears. Conservation wardens have been receiving lots of reports of bears denned in standing corn fields while farmers have been getting their last corn off the field. It's recommended to drive harvest equipment slow around these areas to let bears vacate the area and relocate to avoid a collision with a combine or tractor. Good luck on the ice and enjoy a safe winter season! - John Schreiber, conservation warden, Cornell
Wisconsin Rapids DNR Service Center area
Buckhorn State Park - People have been accessing the lake from the park to ice fish. Remember - we do not monitor ice conditions. Archery hunting continues in the park until Jan. 4. Mark your calendars for our First Day Hike, Jan. 1, 2015. Hike, snowshoe or ski 1.5 miles of the barrens nature trail, look for Ranger Rick geocaches along the trail and warm up at the park office with hot chocolate, coffee and cookies after your hike. Meet at the Barrens Nature Trail (by observation tower). 2-4 p.m. Snowshoes and GPS units are available on a first come basis at the park office. If there is no snow it will still be a hike. - Heather Wolf, park manager
Roche-A-Cri State Park - Gun and archery hunting and trapping are allowed in open areas of the park from Nov. 15 to Dec. 15. Archery hunting continues until Jan. 4. - Heather Wolf, park manager